The AIA 2030 Commitment: Smart Infrastructure

March 3, 2017


Everyone’s talking about infrastructure these days. It has somehow become our national “common ground” topic. Hard to argue against fixing roads and bridges, right?

But in fact, there is much room for differing opinions within the topic. If we can somehow produce the $1 trillion that some people think we need to spend on our national infrastructure, what should we spend it on?

Those of us who have signed the AIA 2030 Commitment to increase the energy efficiency of the buildings and spaces we design and thereby reduce the greenhouse gas emissions created by building energy use may have a unique perspective on this question. We who work to promote societal sustainability may wish to see investment made in infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions from transportation. We may prioritize high-speed rail and urban subway systems over eight-lane freeways.

The American Institute of Architects has gone so far as to say that Americans consider their public buildings – schools, libraries, community centers, and even parks – to be infrastructure. Maybe so. Dams and water mains have their proponents, too. Some would like to see our nation’s airports turned into giant indoor theme parks. Butterfly gardens, indeed.

But nobody seems to be talking about our national electricity distribution network.

The 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave our national energy distribution system a D+. They called our electrical grid “aging”, increasingly subject to failure, and incapable of keeping up with demand. The alternative? A nation-wide smart grid.

A smart grid is “an electrical grid that’s integrated with two-way communication networks”, writes Marc Lallanilla for LiveScience, a technology news aggregator. These networks allow for the real-time monitoring and management of electrical supply and demand. It gives utilities the ability to shift the relationship between power producers and power users. With this technology, energy use can be reduced during peak demands hours and increased during system outages.

A smart grid is also a greener grid. A smart grid supports the growth of distributed generation and energy storage, thereby reducing the need for new fossil-fuel generation capacity. A smart grid is more efficient and reduces transmission loss.

But it’s gonna take work. Our existing electricity infratsructure dates back to the 1880’s.

By some recent cost estimates, a $340 – $480 billion investment over 20 years to overhaul the nation’s electricity distribution network and make it “smart” would offset $70 billion per year in losses from outages and save $20.4 billion per year in increased system efficiency. In short, for every dollar spent on a smart grid, “the return is about $2.80 to $6 to the broader economy. And this figure is very conservative,” figures University of Minnesota professor Massoud Amin.

And you want to talk national security? A smart grid is safer from cyber-attack, sabotage, or natural disaster.

So, architects, interior designers, colleagues, whether you are AIA Members or not: be smart. Speak up. Let’s take this opportunity to influence the national conversation about infrastructure. We can be the people who advocate for a nation-wide smart grid. Start by checking out the AIA Committee on the Environment Advocacy page. Make your voices heard.

This post is part of an ongoing series from Principal Mike Davis, FAIA on our progress toward the AIA 2030 Commitment.